On the Merits of Yellowface
Why Casting the “Best” Actor for the Role Is Actually Just a Selection of Bias in a Racist System
In response to the protest and aftermath of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ now canceled production of The Mikado, this series addresses the racist performance and casting practices of Yellowface in the American Theatre. This series was curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for HowlRound.
In the backlash of yellowface casting in The Mikado, a long-held argument has resurfaced, one that is both patently false and dangerous. That argument is the one for meritocracy—that regardless of race we must protect and advocate for the integrity of the art. That argument is this: a part should go to the best actor for the role.
Define “best.” Best as in most qualified? The person with the most credits? That’s not a great measurement.
We could measure “best” by technical measurements: height, singing ability, body type, etc.
Let’s go with this: the best actor is the one who best fits what the creative team wants.
So it’s up to the creative team to decide who is best. As a director, let me tell you the God’s honest truth: If all those things are equal (or close), I’m going with the person I know. Or the person who’s worked with people I know.
An actor can give an amazing audition and change my mind. But the bias of experience is that if I’m directing, I’m counting on this person to be able to deliver when they get on stage or set. And how do I know they will? Most likely because I’ve seen them do it before—either in the audition, in another show, or because I’ve worked with them.
That’s my bias as a director. I’m sure I have others, as do many people who cast shows. But that’s my point: the best is subjective. In Joy Meads’ exceptional article in American Theatre magazine, she examines the deeply held biases that are ingrained in our society, even those of us who consider ourselves open-minded:
None of us is immune. “Bias is as natural to the human condition as breathing,” Ross says. And, crucially, research has shown that we sometimes bear unconscious bias against our will, and even when it conflicts with our conscious values and beliefs. Indeed, researchers have found unconscious bias in people who believe deeply in racial and gender equality.
We like to think that our field functions as a meritocracy. That if you are talented, work hard, and get a few lucky breaks, you will have a career. But that is not true, especially if you are a woman or a person of color.
The most clear bias in our white supremacist society is that white is universal, better, more preferred. And why not? History is written by the winners, and history books tell us that white people created America, invented theatre, and created The Mikado. The people casting are most likely white.
So how do we pick the best actor? Talent is required, yes. Work ethic, sure. But the last and most key one is this: you have to fit into the big-ass blind spot of meritocracy called “bias.”
Every human being has different tastes and biases. When we pretend that theatre is a meritocracy where the best actor gets the job, and that people who don’t get jobs are less talented, then we continue to enforce the idea that theatre is some magical utopia where bias (which we like to call “taste”) doesn’t exist.
What is theatre if not a meritocracy? When we complain that our field is not a meritocracy, one of our most popular arguments is: it’s about the power of your network, i.e. who you know. It becomes a system in which those who have access to resources are far more likely to succeed than those who do not. That access takes many forms: education/training, networks, gender, etc.
I can hear the actors protest: “But I’m good and talented, that’s why I work.”
Actually, as many actors—especially those of color—can tell you, that’s not why you work. You work because you seem familiar to those behind the table, because often those people are white. If you’re not trained and talented you don’t get into the room. But if you’re trained and talented and white, you have an advantage. Why? Because all major media—the news, the movies your directors grew up on, the television you’ve been watching—tells us that the primacy of the American narrative is the experience of the white, cisgender, able-bodied male. He can portray an Indian, an Asian, or whatever else the story calls for him to be. We like to call it “universal.” So that bias exists in all of us, even those of us who exist outside of that narrative.
To quote Viola Davis: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. Opportunity is not just being in the room to audition; it’s being truly considered for the role based on the totality of your artistry, including race. Opportunity requires people to see through their biases and take a chance.
But this is theatre, right? Where we can have fun, play pretend, etc. So why can’t white people pretend to be Asian?
Because we have the actors to play the roles. Because it reinforces stereotypes. Because of so many reasons, but mostly because it takes away the humanity of an entire community. Theatre is better than that; it’s an art form that aspires. It should be a place where we aspire for a better world and inspire others to create it. If it can’t do that, then can we at least reflect the world we live in now?
To the people wondering about why these jobs just don’t go to the best actor: Put some representatives of the culture being portrayed in charge and let them decide who the best person to represent them is. And respect it, because white people never have to worry about representation on stage.
And to those who want to continue to perpetrate yellowface on the American stage: You have every right to do that. Just know that with that choice, with the revelation of that bias, there are communities that you are damaging, you are reenacting racist practices, and there will be people who stand against you.
It has nothing to do with who the best actor is. And everything to do with who the better person is.